Tag Archives: Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Train of Thought

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 11th September, 2017

 

With delicious irony, the fates delay the curtain up on this play centring around trains.  Ha, ha, universe!

But when this production from Exeter Northcott Theatre does get under way, it’s full steam ahead for a lovely piece of theatre.

When their father leaves them under mysterious circumstances, siblings Roberta, Phyllis and Peter move from London with their mother to a quaint but humble country cottage near to a railway.  As a distraction from their newfound poverty, the children take to waving at passengers on the trains, notably an ‘Old Gentleman’ who proves to be crucial to later plot developments.  They also strike up friendship with stationmaster Perks and his eldest son, John.

On the surface, the show drips with Brexiteer nostalgia for an England that never existed.  A closer look reveals this to be a place where people are nasty and suspicious when a foreigner in need enters their midst – but not E. Nesbit’s heroic children, whose only impulse is to help the poor man.  It’s a place where people worry about the expense of seeing the doctor – he runs some kind of private health insurance club the locals chip in to.

Against the backdrop of this society, the three kids learn that sharing is best, that people have pride and there is a difference between gifts and handouts.  I am gobsmacked; I had no idea the story was so political.  Dave Simpson’s adaptation of the classic novel does not shy away from the author’s socialist leanings.

As Roberta, the eldest, Millie Turner captures the essence of a girl between youth and maturity, while as her siblings Peter and Phyllis, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton are spirited in their immaturity.  The kids squabble but never lose their sense of decency and fair play.

The immensely likeable Stewart Wright narrates as the avuncular Perks; Callum Goulden does a nice comic turn as his tearaway offspring.  Will Richards makes a striking Russian, expressive before he even utters a word in any language, while Andrew Joshi’s increasingly knackered doctor provides much of the broader humour.  Joy Brook shines as the authoritative, firm but fair mother, all stiff upper lip and sacrifice for the sake of her children while espousing their Russian houseguest’s revolutionary ideals.

Timothy Bird’s set, costume and video designs not only evoke the Edwardian setting but add layers of artificiality, blending practical effects (a cut-out carriage is a hoot!) with projected animations, reminding us that this seemingly cosy place is not real.  Director Paul Jepson ensures the energy of his performers is not overshadowed by the impressive technical features of the production, and adds effective bits of business to keep the actors to the fore: a slow-motion moment during Perks’s birthday party, for example – there is some lovely character playing by Andrea Davy as Perks’s wife.

The iconic moments are all here.  Averting a rail disaster by ripping up Roberta’s red petticoat and waving it like mad.  The touching reunion… Misty-eyed?  Me?  Must just be a bit of steam in my eye.

All right, I admit it, I am touched right in the feels and the needle on my nostalgia dial is in the red, but most of all I am struck that this tale from a more innocent age over a century ago speaks so strongly to us today and has such currency.  There is a lot to be said for Englishness, for doing what is right, for supporting the underdog; just as there is a lot to be said against the nasty, narrow-minded, inward-looking, xenophobic attitudes of many English people today!  In 2017!  As if world events since the book first appeared mean nothing.

How much underwear do I have to tear up and wave around to stop this country going off the rails?

Mille-Turner-Vinay-Lad-Katherine-Carlton-in-The-Railway-Children_Photo-Mark-Dawson-Photography

Millie Turner, Vinay Lad and Katherine Carlton (Photo: Mark Dawson)

 

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A Dog Without Purpose

FAITHFUL RUSLAN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 5th September, 2017

 

If George Orwell had written Lassie Come Home it might have turned out something like this: heavy with political allegory and mired in the harshness of life.  Based on a cult novel by Georgi Vladimov, Faithful Ruslan is the story of a guard dog, made redundant by the closure of his gulag.  This is no cosy, heart-warming Greyfriars Bobby – Ruslan is so conditioned by his training, he can’t forego the old regime and would rather suffer and starve than accept food or a helping hand from a stranger.

Max Keeble features as Ruslan in a remarkable display of physicality.  He comes across as a man-dog, his movements and reactions utterly credible.  Other members of the cast crop up as narrators of Ruslan’s thoughts, their anthropomorphic accounts at odds with the canine qualities of Keeble’s performance.  Ruslan’s thoughts give us a view of the action no dog would ever have, speaking of things dogs can’t conceptualise.  If ever you’ve heard someone banging on about a dog’s birthday, you’ll get the idea.

Helena Kaut-Howson has adapted the novel and directs this production with a sharp eye and vigour, putting her cast through a regimen as they become not just dogs and other humans but swinging doors and props for scenic items.  It’s a relentless barrage of ideas, the vast majority of them extremely effective.  (There’s an ill-advised rap quality to one bit of narration about a tractor but I’ll gloss over that!)

Martin Donaghy is Ruslan’s cruel and treacherous Master, an ostensible villain, but of course, it’s the system that’s to blame, here called The Service.  Paul Brendan brings a down-to-earth touch of humour to proceedings as the Shabby Man, who crosses Ruslan’s path.  Isabelle Joss appears as Stiura, Shabby Man’s lady friend who has nightmares about being gangraped by a long line of prisoners.  You see, it’s not just about man’s slavery and exploitation of animals but the way humans treat each other.  Another standout is Hunter Bishop as an energetic and enthusiastic Instructor for the Service dogs who ends up barking mad himself.

There is much to appreciate in this ensemble piece, where the physicality of the performers is enhanced by lighting effects that bring colour to this grim, grey world. Projections of scene captions add to the epic theatre feel.  For this stage adaptation, the story is set as a play-within-a-play, performed by the inmates of a corrective facility on the eve of the centenary of the Russian revolution… All I can say is, that corrective facility has one hell of a sophisticated drama society.

You come out impressed by the form but depressed by the content.  There is nothing uplifting, no ray of light.  The conclusion seems to be that if you’re drowned as a puppy, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Grim, largely unpleasant but compellingly told – it’s going to take a lot of vodka to get the taste out of my mouth.

Max Keeble in Faithful Ruslan - Credit Robert Day

Doggy style: Max Keeble as Ruslan (Photo: Robert Day)


Mods and Mockers

ROMEO AND JULIET

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 20th June, 2017

 

The consistently excellent Oddsocks Productions revisits Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-cross’d lovers, this time giving it a mods and rockers setting.  There is more of Brighton than Verona and, in keeping with the company’s fun-loving style, it works extremely well.  The two households are divided by musical differences; the Montagues are the mods, the Capulets the rockers, and the audience is also divided along these lines for a running joke of participation that, instead of becoming more tired as the play goes on, becomes more hilarious.

Director and resident genius Andy Barrow appears as both Capulet, a pot-bellied Black Country rocker, and a bandana-sporting, sneering Tybalt.  At one point he is called upon to argue with himself behind the bar of the Capulets’ Cavern of Rock – just one of the many highlights that exhibit the man’s comic superpowers.  This is also the first time I’ve heard a rendition of ‘Black Betty’ in a Shakespeare production.  Barrow is generous is sharing the laughs out among the rest of his cast of six, a group that comprises familiar faces and new recruits.

Returning favourites include Rebecca Little as the Nurse – another of her remarkable characterisations, distilling the essence of the Shakespearean model and blending it with Oddsocks energy.  It is remarkable how the moment can turn, and knockabout antics suddenly become heartfelt.  I’ve said it before, many times, this is what Oddsocks does so brilliantly: giving us a lot of fun but remaining true to the spirit of the play.  Every now and then Shakespeare asserts himself and the drama comes to the fore.  One such moment tonight is the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio (Alexander Bean).  It’s all fun and games until someone loses a kinsman.  Cartoon, slapstick violence is suddenly deadly serious.  Kudos to fight director Ian Stapleton!

Also back for more is the marvellous Gavin Harrison as Benvolio, in parka and pork pie hat, and ‘Jimmy Paris’ a Rockstar guitarist.  Harrison is fast becoming a fixture in this company – they’d be hard pressed to find anyone to better him.

Newcomer Alexander Bean’s Mercutio surprises us with the sudden beauty of the Queen Mab speech, and his West Indian Friar Laurence is a deadpan delight.  The rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse fits many accents – Oddsocks certainly puts that to the test!

Also new are the eponymous lovers.  Pippa Lewis’s rock chick Juliet is wonderfully immature and, unbelievably, credible!  She also plays a mean saxophone.  Good-looking Matthew Burns is a great find as Romeo, moody, volatile and very funny.

This tight ensemble all play instruments and sing.  Oddsocks productions of late have become musicals, interpolating hits of yesteryear (and sometimes of the present day!) into the action.  The choices are always spot on.  And never more than at the end, when the stage is littered with bodies and Benvolio leads a rendition of ‘Enjoy Yourself, it’s later than you think’.

Bloody bonkers and bloody brilliant.

oddsocks r and j

Called to the bar: Andy Barrow as Tybalt


Bubbling Over

THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 6th April, 2017

 

A co-production with Theatre Royal Stratford East, this new version of Kirsten Childs’s appealing musical froths with effervescence, like champagne.  But, as our protagonist demonstrates, there’s a nasty undertone to life and all she can do is to move on to the next frothy moment.   Viveca “Call me Bubbly” Stanton spends her life trying to be liked.  We see her go from childhood dreams of being a world-famous dancer and being white to trying to fit in with flower power and the growing black consciousness, to auditioning for Broadway roles, and so on, all before she at last fulfils the promise of the show’s title and quits trying to blend in and be herself.

The first act is set in L.A. and begins when a very young Bubbly (a perky Karis Jack) learns of the deaths of four young girls in Alabama, bombed while they were at church.  It’s a scarring moment – and motivates Bubbly’s ‘chameleon’ nature.  She doesn’t want the same fate to befall her.  Karis Jack is a mass of energy, with a sweet voice and broad smile – you can’t help liking her; Bubbly’s delusions, dreams and ambitions are her shields against the racial intolerance and hate crimes in her world.  The second act follows Bubbly to New York City where the role is taken over by Sophia Mackay, who belts out her more soulful numbers.  Both actors are immensely talented, vocally and comedically.  And so we get two leading ladies for the price of one, which can’t be bad.

The score is irresistible – there’s not a duff number in it.  Musically, it’s a lot like Hair with a touch of Little Shop of Horrors.  Mykal Rand’s choreography evokes each decade of Bubbly’s story as much as Rosa Maggiora’s costumes.  Childs’s lyrics sparkle with wit and her book tends to keep matters light – this is musical theatre, after all.  Hairspray deals with civil rights issues more directly – here we see the individual’s response – in NYC, Bubbly faces discrimination more directly and, until her metaphoric skin-shedding, adapts to accommodate it, cranking up the stereotype in order to be accepted.

Trevor A. Toussaint as Bubbly’s Daddy has a deep rich voice I could listen to all night, while Sharon Wattis as Bubbly’s more pragmatic Mommy shares a searing duet with her daughter that gives rise to chills.  Llandyll Gove amuses as a fairytale prince and as dippy hippy Cosmic Rainbow.  Jessica Pardoe is striking as Bubbly’s childhood doll (white, of course!) Chitty Chatty, and later as a succession of dance teachers.  Shelley Williams almost stops the show dispensing Granny’s Advice, a rousing, gospel-like number, and Jay Marsh’s Gregory shows incredible vocal range. The orchestrations by musical director Jordan Li-Smith convince with their authentic sounds across the timespan of the story.

It’s a hugely enjoyable piece with plenty of laughs and toe-tapping songs.  It also has something to say to us in this benighted age, by showing us the psychological devastation of racism on a child.  Growing up black in a white world has much in common with growing up queer in a straight one (that’s a dissertation for someone else to write!) – we see the consequences of prejudice and hate, blighting Bubbly’s life before she’s started to live it.  The show doesn’t browbeat us with its message but is nonetheless powerful for its apparent lightness.

bubbly

Karis Jack

 


The Play Works

THE MACHINE STOPS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th April, 2017

 

This production from Pilot Theatre comes to the end of its tour at the Belgrade’s B2 studio.  Given its themes, you would think the original short story on which the play is based was written five minutes ago.  The story is astonishingly prescient and no less pertinent having first seen the light of day in 1909.  That’s 1909 not 2009.

We are in a post-apocalyptic future.  Humanity lives underground, each individual in their own room or cell in which they find all their needs fulfilled by the ‘Machine’ that sustains them.  All communication is done via personal screens – in this way, people have contacts the whole world over but they never meet.  Sound familiar?  Kuno (Rohan Nedd) has other ideas.  He believes that humanity has lost something of itself because we no longer interact in person.  He’s not wrong.  He tries to persuade his mother – the woman who gave birth to him, to be more precise – that there is more to life, that the surface isn’t as barren and toxic as the Machine leads everyone to believe.

The woman – Vashti, played by an excellent Ricky Butt – clings to her blinkered views and complete and blind faith in the Machine as a force for good.  She even begins praying to it – in a stark reminder that the divine is manmade.  It is only when it’s too late and the Machine breaks down that Vashti realises what has been lost.

It’s an enthralling piece, rich with ideas both in form and content.  Maria Gray and Adam Slynn are almost ever-present as parts of the Machine, writhing and contorting in grey bodystockings, in a mesmerising display of acrobatics and physicality.  Rhys Jarman’s set consists of a framework that serves as a kind of jungle gym for the Machine parts as well as delineating the limits of the cells.  Tom Smith’s lighting makes superb use of darkness for chilling effect, and Juliet Forster’s direction keeps the action taut, the ideas provocative.  In fact, only the electronic music seems somewhat dated in its presentation of ‘futuristic’ sounds.

Pilot_Theatre-The_Machine_Stops-Feb_2017-Photo by Ben_Bentley- Adam Slynn and Maria Gray 93

Adam Slynn and Maria Gray (Photo: Ben Bentley)

Rohan Nedd portrays Kuno’s rebellious drive and evangelism with verve but it is Ricky Bull’s Vashti who has the stronger impact, like a Brexiteer clinging to the wreckage of civilisation and proclaiming all is well.

Neil Duffield’s adaptation reveals the relevance of the original story – unless we regain our relationship with nature, we are doomed.  In these days of unfettered capitalism and climate change denial, the message is urgent and compelling.

And the writer of the original tale, way back in 1909?  None other than E. M. Forster!  He of Room With A View fame and the source of many other Merchant-Ivory films.  This seems as astounding to me as the story itself.  Good on you, E. M!

Pilot_Theatre-The_Machine_Stops-Feb_2017- photo by Ben_Bentley-9 Ricky Butt

Ricky Butt (Photo: Ben Bentley)


Stuff and Nonsense

The Quite Remarkable Adventures of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 21st February, 2017

 

Edward Lear’s famous nonsense poem was the springboard for a book by former Python Eric Idle.  Now the book is adapted for the stage by composer and musical director, Dougal Irvine (who also provides the voice of the ‘Small Guitar’ and an imaginary dragon!).

The production is nothing short of charming.  An energetic ensemble of actor-musicians, led by Irvine, get proceedings underway with an audience singalong – normally the kind of thing to make me shrink in my seat, but the tune is infectious, the lyrics (including animal noises) are fun, and so I join in and am immediately put into a good mood, and predisposed to think kindly of the action as it unfolds.

The titular pair, both riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem, form a bond when, Deep Impact style, they notice a comet is heading directly for the Earth, threatening an extinction event not seen since the dinosaurs were wiped out.  They inform an appropriate human at a university and set out on a quest to find the runaway Bong Tree (voiced by Idle himself, no less!).  Meanwhile, the show’s baddie, Lord Firelord is planning to wipe out all life on Earth with the creation of a new ice age…

The charm of the actors and the richness of the score, with its lively melodies and clever lyrics, keeps us on board this ride in the pea-green boat.  There is some social comment here – humans are too preoccupied with shopping to notice or care about their imminent destruction, and there is an obvious environmental message – but I think the show’s ‘lessons’ are in danger of being considered ‘nonsense’ along with the rest.  Characters take pride in speaking nonsense; anything they say that we are meant to take on board could easily be dismissed…

That aside, this is an enjoyable, family show, performed with verve and heart.  Danny Lane as Owl, and Sally Frith as Pussycat, are likeable protagonists, and their singing voices blend magnificently in their duets.  Miri Gellert impresses, voicing two glove puppets at once – similarly, Yanick Ghanty portrays a pair of henchmen simultaneously.  A comic highlight of the show is when he falls out with himself and beats himself up in a skilful display of physical comedy.  Vedi Roy plays bad guy Firelord with relish, complete with maniacal laughter, although I found his costume made him look like an Indian Elvis in Vegas.  Lizzie Wofford’s Pig and Professor Bosh show her versatility as a character actor – her singing voice is particularly powerful.

Director Hamish Glen balances larger-than-life characters and outlandish events with quieter, emotional moments, allowing the cast to bring out the ‘human’ (for want of a better word) side of the characters.  The kids in the audience are clearly enrapt by the drama with its themes of global extinction and mortality, friendship and love, while the adults enjoy the sharper jokes.  Libby Watson’s versatile set forms a backdrop for Dick Straker’s video projections, to depict the story’s various locations attractively and economically.  But for me, the production is all about one man – Mr Dougal Irvine.  His script is enriched by his compositions, a beautiful score other, larger productions would do well to emulate (I’m looking at you, Wonderland!)

owl-cast


Many Wrongs Make a Right

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 23rd January, 2017

 

Those of us involved in live performance in any way will have stories to tell, usually for comic effect, about moments on stage that have gone awry: a prop that wasn’t there, a missed cue, a technical mishap, or even just the hell of being stranded in a scene with a co-star who is less than competent.  Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have gathered all those moments and distilled them into a nightmare – for the actors.  For the audience, it’s a treat.

“Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society” are staging ropey old murder mystery The Murder at Haversham Manor.  Beset from the start by difficulties, they battle on to the bitter end, incurring injury and embarrassment along the way.  Patrick Warner plays director Chris Bean, bringing a touch of Basil Fawlty to his moments of extremis.   He also appears as Inspector Carter – our pleasure comes from seeing his characterisation slip as his desperation and exasperation grow.  Edward Judge is a delight as bombastic Thomas, declaiming in plus fours, while Alistair Kirton shamelessly plays to the gallery every time a bit of posturing receives approval.  Before long he has gained confidence and is gesturing and gesticulating like a semaphore signaller.  Meg Mortell flits around in the ingénue role until a mishap causes her to be replaced by a clueless stage manager who soon becomes violently possessive about her new role.  Jason Callender makes for the most mobile and expressive corpse you will ever see, and Edward Howells’s butler, hopeless at pronunciation, is consistently hilarious.  Add to the mix, Graeme Rooney’s less-than-conscientious lighting and sound operator and the drama that unfolds is not the one the drama society would like us to see.

Instead, the tension comes from watching this talented cast perform feats of physical comedy that are painfully funny.  We cringe at the awfulness of their plight, marvel at the way they get out of situations, and gasp at the surprises that crop up in their path.  Director Mark Bell manages the mania and the descent into chaos, giving us shocks and suspense, both of which we relish.

An unadulterated pleasure to have the chance to see this show as it tours again, but this time I am struck by what it says about us as humans.  The show-must-go-on mentality is a cliché, but beyond the theatre, this play going wrong can also be a metaphor for human endeavour.  Despite what life throws at us, there is a drive to keep things going, to bring order, to adapt and endure, even if it all comes crashing down around us.  It’s what enables us to survive as a species.

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